Is Black Walnut a Hardwood Or A Softwood?

We like walnuts. They’re in one of our favorite sweets – baklava. They’re also good to snack on, healthy and rich in protein, at 4.5 grams in a quarter cup. We keep a supply handy in the cupboard all the time.

Obviously, walnuts come from walnut trees. Walnut trees are deciduous, meaning they lose their leaves in the winter. When talking about hardwoods and softwoods, that matters. We’ll be more specific as we go along in this article.

Black walnut wood is favored by woodworkers for a number of reasons, including:

  • Strength. Janka Scale ranking to follow.
  • Grain. Walnut wood grain is in between grainy wood, such as oak, and textured wood, like maple.
  • Color. It ranges from light brown to dark chocolate in the heartwood and perhaps a little yellow in the sapwood that surrounds it.

Black walnut wood is dark, pretty hard, very dense, and with a tight grain. It is also very heavy, with a 1 cubic foot weighing 38 lbs. It is the only dark wood native to North America, although the dark color is usually found only in the center of the tree, the heartwood. The sapwood, the outer ring around the heartwood, though, will have a pale blond color to it.

Does Black Walnut Wood Change Color After Use?

Black walnut wood turns a lighter color over time, while other hardwoods darken, such as oak, cherry, and maple. An oil finish, though, can help black walnut wood retain its dark color while also adding a slight honey quality to its dark hue.

Black Walnut Trees

Black Walnut Tree

As we mentioned, black walnut trees are deciduous and will shed their leaves in the late fall and winter. They grow from the east coast to the Great Plains and from Texas to southern Canada. Most consider the best quality walnut trees will be found in the central states.

Black walnut trees will often grow 100 – 120 feet in height and between 3 and 3 1/2 inches in diameter, which can represent upwards of 150 years in age. However, some of those 150-year-old Eastern black walnut trees can also have upwards of an 8’ diameter.  Black walnut trees that grow in the forest will tend to be straight and without branches.

The trees like direct sun and well-drained soil. The root system of American black walnut trees can become huge and present problems for neighboring trees and plants. In fact, a chemical produced in the American black walnut tree is toxic to its neighbors.

The chemical is called juglone, and it can be found not only in the roots but also in the leaves, the bark, and the seed husks. It’s poisonous to a wide range of plants and trees, including:

  • Various pines, including white, Scotch, and red pines;
  • Birch trees used in the making of paper;
  • Apple trees; and,
  • Tomato plants.

However, in the forest, apple trees (usually growing in cultured orchards now) and tomato plants (farms and home gardens) are not usually present, and orchard and garden owners know better to keep them very separate, if nearby at all.

Common Uses of Black Walnut Wood

Black Walnut Cutting Board

As you might be able to guess from the descriptions above, black walnut wood is highly prized by woodworkers. It’s a beautiful wood, and in fact, many woodworkers will not stain it; rather, clear finishes or oil finishes are very often used in black walnut wood projects to preserve its natural beauty and allow it to show through the finish.

It is a straight-grained wood, a good wood for shaping, and valued by those whose woodworking involves turnery. It’s relatively strong wood and dries easily with a moderate kiln process. It also holds its shape well after curing.

It is quite commonly used in a variety of woodworking projects:

  • Furniture
  • Cabinets
  • Flooring
  • Carvings
  • Gunstocks
  • Wood veneers

Black walnut wood is very durable and resists rot. You’d use it for a purpose where longevity was wanted. Black walnut wood furniture will last a long time, as will floors. As the price of black walnut wood rises, it will often be used for wood veneers to stretch that dollar paid. However, its longevity also contributes to the wood being eco-friendly – projects that use it tend to last a very long time.

Black Walnut Wood – Hardwood or Softwood?

We know that the terms hardwood and softwood do not refer to the heartiness of a wood. Rather, they refer to the trees from which the wood comes. In this instance, and since black walnut trees are deciduous, black walnut wood is a hardwood. It fits in the category of hardwoods along with cherry, maple, and oak. Softwoods, on the other hand, those that come from gymnosperm trees (conifers), include pine, cedar, and fir.

It’s dense and durable, and as we said earlier, a bit heavy. But, you’ll enjoy working with it, as you might be able to tell from the list of its more common uses.

Black Walnut Wood On The Janka Scale

The Janka Scale, created by Gabriel Janka, measures the hardness of wood. A steel ball is placed on a piece of wood, and the amount of pressure required to drive it halfway into the wood gives the Janka Scale value. The force is measured in lbf (pounds-force) indicated simply by a number.

To compare it to some of the other hardwoods we’ve mentioned:

WoodJanka Score
Basswood410
Aspen420
White Pine420
Douglas Fir660
Mahogany800
Cedar900
Black Walnut1010
African Mahogany1100
Birch1260
Red Oak1290
Lignum Vitae4400

While its Janka score is lower than the others, it remains a moderately hard species of hardwood with great durability, resistance to rot, a straight grain that will hold its shape after curing, and is dense enough to resist denting and scratches. Black walnut furniture is prized because of this.

Words can tell a story, but seeing black walnut wood in action with a woodworker can go beyond the words. This time, we have chosen a couple of videos, and the reasons for them will become clear as you watch.

The first is a woodworker giving you some basic tips for working with black walnut wood in particular, although he does also mention English walnut wood in passing.

The second video will give you an eyes-on experience of building a black walnut table from the beginning through finish. It’s a cool project, and we thought you might find it interesting enough to take on for yourself in your own woodworking shop.

Black walnut is a beautiful wood. It machines well, cuts well, turns well, and is durable enough to last for a long time. If you are going to work with it, you might want to simply leave it to show through your finish and choose something clear or an oil finish. It is expensive, but your finished project will last a long time for you, whether it be new cabinets in your kitchen, a piece of furniture, or new flooring.